Depth of Field, or what I’ve learned about life and leadership from photography


Right, first an admission.  I actually haven’t learned all that much about life and leadership from my favorite hobby.  It did lend itself to a clever title however, and a slew of analogies and different ways of thinking about life and leadership that I’ve found useful and/or amusing.

A  definition to start… Depth of Field in this sense refers to the area of a photograph that’s in focus.  A wide depth of field means more is in focus, while a narrow depth of field means less is in focus – more of the image is blurred out.

1) Depth of field itself.  A narrow focus (small depth of field) in life or in a task can blind us to what else is happening around us. If we’re so focused on a single subject or task that we lose sight of the big picture, and what else is happening around us, we open ourselves up to missing something important.  As a leader this really applies to safety in that it’s our job to keep an eye on the big picture and see what hazards might be sneaking up on us.  In our personal lives if we focus too intently on something – say work or a hobby – we can be oblivious to what’s going on with those we hold dear.  It’s important to be aware of more than just our immediate concerns if we have the time and ability to do so.

Now a narrow depth of field isn’t always a bad thing.  In photography, it can be used to draw the attention of the viewer to a certain person, object, or aspect of an image, and reduce the distractions of other things in the frame.  Similarly, there are times when it’s best that our attention as leaders is tightly focused on a task or subject, and we ignore the background clutter that can distract us.  I know that in my experience there are occasions when there are simply too many details to tackle at once in a large project or task, and the only way to succeed is to focus on one item at a time.  Like anything else, it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to let yourself get drawn in and ignore the clutter in the background, and when to step back a bit and make sure you’re seeing the whole picture.

2) One thing that I’ve really come to appreciate in life and in photography is that success is often based on being in the right place at the right time. There are often opportunities in life that can only be pursued if you’re in the right place at the right time.  Sometimes this is based on luck, sometimes it’s based on skill and pre-planning, and many times it’s a combination of both.  In my experience, my favorite images and memories have all been of times where I found myself in the right place with the right tools to succeed.  It takes effort to be in the right place and prepared when opportunity arises, but it’s worth it.

3)  Sometimes the best camera or tool is the one you have – don’t let what you don’t have spoil your vision or prevent you from being successful.  Photographers and most fire people I know are a gear-crazy bunch.  There’s always some new camera, lens, piece of equipment, or tool that will make your images come out better or let you put out more fires  But it doesn’t matter if you don’t have it with you or it doesn’t work when opportunity presents itself.  Some of my favorite pictures have been when I didn’t have my best camera with me, and I used what I had on hand.  In fire, we frequently lack the “best” tools do a task, and so we make do with what we have.  It’s a core value in our can-do culture, and a subject of pride that we can do more with less.  Some of the most impressive feats of ingenuity I’ve ever seen have been performed by firefighters making the best of what they have to take advantage of an opportunity.  Rather than complain about  what you don’t have, use what you do have to seize the moment.

This leads to:

5) Sometimes you just can’t do what you want to do with what you have.  There are in fact limitations of tools, skill, resources.  This shouldn’t stop you from taking pictures or doing your job, but sometimes the truth is that you need something specific to meet your goal.  When you find yourself without the tools or people you need, don’t try to make it work  just to be disappointed with the results.  Work within the limitations of your gear and your people to set reasonable and achievable goals.  Success for a type 6 engine crew looks different than success for a hotshot crew.  Don’t expect your people to do something they aren’t capable of – that is, don’t set them up to fail by having unreasonable expectations.  In photography it’s silly to expect someone with an iPhone to take images of the same quality as someone with an $8,000 camera.  In fire it’s similarly silly to expect the same results from a 3-person engine crew as you’d expect from a 20-person hotshot crew.  You can be successful with both, but it will look different.  Recognize your limitations, and define your success accordingly.

4) Previsualization is important, but you have to communicate your vision to your team.  Many good photographers make a point of previsualizing their images – that is, they know how the want the image to look before they even set up their equipment.  When I wander around, I usually have a set of ideas for cool images in my head, and I’m always on the lookout for a scene that fits what I’ve previsualized.  The same goes for fire, with one added component:  A great idea that sits in your head is of no value to your team unless you give them good leaders intent.  You may have the perfect scheme for a project, but unless those around you understand not only the how but the why, it will be difficult to see your vision become reality.  In a leadership environment, how you shape and share your vision of success with others matters.

6) Being a leader is about making others look good.  Your goal shouldn’t be to make yourself look good (like a selfie posted on social media), but to make others look good (like taking a portrait of someone else).  Being a good photographer is about focusing attention on your subject, not yourself.  Leadership is the same. Focus the attention on your people – they’re the ones who deserve it.

7) It took me a while to realize that sometimes people are like raw, unprocessed images – not much to look at on first glance, but with a little effort on your part can truly shine.  A good photographer knows that some rough images can be turned into works of art, and a good leader knows when to give people a chance and work with them to be all that they’re capable of.  Leadership is about recognizing potential in people, and helping them reach it.

So there’s nothing really groundbreaking in this post.  It’s all about things we’ve heard and done before.  But there’s always a new way to look at a topic, and new angles to view it from.  This is just another way that I’ve found interesting and somewhat useful.

Until next time…



About Justin Vernon

I'm an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.
This entry was posted in Introvert, Leadership, Personal, Wildland Fire. Bookmark the permalink.

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